Braintree Man Describes Prisoners’ 500 Mile March
My father, Staff Sergeant Raymond E. Bence, Jr. gave this interview to the Quincy Patriot Ledger immediately after his return home to Braintree, Massachusetts on June 15, 1945. He enlisted after graduating from Braintree High School in 1943. He turned 18 on August 25, 1943.
He was nose-gunner on Lt. Fromm’s crew, 703rd Squadron, 445th BG, for the Kassel mission.
His nickname in the squadron was “The Kid”. He flew 14 missions with the 445th before his 19th birthday. The mission to Kassel was his 19th mission.
In the interview he identifies Lt. Fromm’s B-24 by the name “Special Delivery”.
Interview with Raymond E. Bence, Jr., published in the Quincy Patriot Ledger, June 20, 1945, page 1 (continued on page 14)
Braintree Man Describes Prisoners’ 500 Mile March
BRAINTREE, June 20 – A forced march nearly 500 miles over the roads of Europe as Germans attempted to keep hundreds of American and British prisoners out of reach of advancing Allied troops was today described by S. Sgt. Raymond E. Bence, Jr., 19, of 24 Atherton street, East Braintree, who is home on leave.
Carried to Hospital
With his legs so numb that they had no feeling and running a temperature of 105, Sergeant Bence, nose gunner on a B-24, finally collapsed near the end of his long trek and was carried to a hospital where he was liberated after being a prisoner for seven months.
The Braintree airman was a member of the crew of the bomber “Special Delivery,” based in England. His adventure started during his 19th mission to a tank factory in Germany.
“Near the target,” he said, “200 fighters attacked our formation of 36 planes. During the fight we lost 32 planes. Our plane was one of the first to go down.
“Two of our motors were on fire, the hydraulic system and the interphone systems were knocked out. As a result of the damage I didn’t hear the warning bell to bail out. The first I knew that the crew was starting to leave the crippled plane was when First Lt. Charles McCann beckoned to me to follow him.
“At the time we were at 17,000 to 18,000 when we bailed out of the nose-wheel hatch. My ‘chute opened all right and I floated down through the air, landing in a tree near a little town south of Kassel.
“A group of men, women and a couple of slave laborers approached me as I hung in the tree. One of them had a pitch-fork. Believe me, I didn’t know what they were going to do.
“But when I got to the ground, one of them threw his arms around me. He said he had relatives over in this country and started to ask me all sorts of questions. For a time I thought they were going to help me get away, but the mayor of the town came up and I was marched into town.
Eight Landed Safely
“Later, I heard that of the nine men in the plane, eight landed safely.
“As I went through the town, the children started to yell ‘Chicago Gangster’ and ‘Terror-fligger’ AT ME. Many of them wore the Hitler youth uniform. But, some of the older men kept them away from me.
“After being questioned and sent to a transient camp, I was finally placed in Stalag Luft 4D in Pomerania, where I stayed from Oct. 7 to Feb. 6. We had a pretty good set-up there. But, as the Russians started to get closer they evacuated between four and five thousand of us.”
It was from her on that Sergeant Bence underwent many hardships as he and the others were forced to make the march of 700 kilometers, during which they slept in barns, fields and ate when and whatever they could. Food, he said, was exceptionally scarce.
For periods of three and four days, all they had to eat were a few potatoes. Along the road he swapped a cigarette case for a half-loaf of soggy black bread. Other members of the party swapped watches and other articles for food.
Finally the weary group reached Stalag 11A near Hanover. They were there only 12 days when news arrived that the Americans were only 30 kilometers away. Overhead they could see planes of the RAF flying. Once they saw a German plane shot down and let out a mighty cheer.
On April 12 the prisoners were again forced to march away from their liberators and were taken to Annaburg, which was formerly a repatriation center.
Along the route they could hear and see P-47’s and P-38’s flying overhead, strafing enemy trains. In the distance they could hear the roar of guns and the men, Sgt. Bence said, then knew that the hour of their liberation was hear.
“The day before we were scheduled to reach Annaburg” Sergeant Bence said, “my legs gave way. I managed to get up and struggle along to a small town where I waited about three hours and was picked up by a wagon.
“We had just got out of town when P-47’s came over and strafed and dive-bombed railroads and bridges. The place we were staying at 15 minutes before was destroyed, we heard.
“As the planes came near us, we made for ditches until they had passed by. Finally we reached a town. I was so weak that they had to carry me into a hospital. A British doctor, who had been captured, examined me and told me I had pneumonia. I was running a temperature of 105.
“News arrived that the Allied troops were near and the Nazi guards took off and left us on our own hook.
“The Russians arrived at the place on April 24. Three days later some American officers flew in. They told us the Americans and Russians hadn’t joined up, but that it wouldn’t be long.
“Then came the big day. I was in bed when I heard the roar of trucks and someone rushed in yelling, ‘The Americans are here.’ Hey took us in trucks and ambulances to a clearing station. It was here that I got my first taste of American food. It sure tasted good.
“I had been on the road for two-and-a-half months and had hiked more than 400 miles. During the march. During the march I lost 55 pounds.”
Sergeant Bence was taken to an evacuation hospital and then was flown to Camp Lucky Strike where he was under treatment for two weeks. He was then send home aboard a Navy transport, arriving in New York a week ago.
“You just can’t realize,” he said, “what it means to see American shore-lines again and to finally put your feet back on American soil.”
Taken to Fort Devens, he was given a 60-day leave and arrived at home Friday night.
Sergeant Bence is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Bence of the home address. A graduate of Jonas Perkins school and Braintree high school, class of 1943, where he was a member of the Glee club and the Rifle club. Sergeant Bence joined the air forces, Sept. 18, 1843 when he was 17. He received his gunners’ wings at Westover Field, Mass., and was sent overseas last June.
The Weymouth gunner has been awarded the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf cluster and the ETO ribbon with a battle star.
He will report back to Atlantic City for re-assignment at the end of his 60-day leave.
“Braintree Man Describes Prisoners’ 500 Mile March.” Quincy Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Massachusetts, 20 June 1945. Pages 1, 14. Print.
Word of the Day – togglier
“The togglier was responsible for arming and dropping the bombs in lieu of a bombardier. As the war progressed, the bombing formations would drop when the lead aircraft dropped, and the need for skilled bombardiers decreased. Dropping bombs involved flipping (or toggling) the switch(es) that result in activating the bomb release mechanisms. This is the origin of the title “togglier”, a combination of toggle and bombardier. The lead aircraft crew would include a skilled “group” bombardier, and many of the other crews would utilize toggliers.”
Source: The 401st Bomb Group (H) Association web page http://401bg.org/forum/yaf_postst947_What-is-a-Togglier.aspx#post4314